Wednesday, October 05, 2005
Propelling Society Forward
George Katsiaficas’s “Aesthetic and Political Avant-Gardes“ attempts to recoup the original sense of the term “avant-garde” as delineating “attempts to forge new dimensions to our aesthetic and political definitions of reality.” “At the intersection of art and politics is where the term originated,” writes Katsiafacas, “and it is there that its most explosive interpretations can be found.”
Sadly (for Katsiaficas), this intersection is badly in need of repair these days:
Generally speaking, what is called “avant-garde art” today is completely depoliticized, a facet of its nature considered by many to be a hallmark of “modernism.” According to this view, the modernist tradition’s emphasis is on the “aesthetic” rather than on morality, human suffering or politics. Thus understood, modernists have replaced the spiritual and religious structuring of emotional experience with a secular equivalent: the “aesthetic.”. . .
I’ll put aside the now hackneyed accusation that an interest in the aesthetic amounts to some kind of substitute for religion. It’s just a convenient way to dismiss the views and the practices of those who don’t turn first to politics or “morality” in thinking about the role of art without having to seriously consider them. I’ll also grant Katsiaficas’s further point that “when first used in relation to artistic movements, i.e. before the ‘modern’ period, ‘avant-garde’ movements were thought to be forces that would propel society forward, not simply to uphold aesthetic values.” The idea that radical art might be transformed into radical political action may be mistaken, as I believe it is, but that many of those responsible for advancing the idea of the avant-garde in the first place believed it is more or less undeniable.
I am more interested in the assumptions behind Katsiaficas’s specific rejection of the kind of art that would become associated with the depoliticized avant-garde of the later 19th and 20th centuries. Considering the rise of impressionism after the events of 1848, he asserts that “impressionism is an art of the immediate satisfaction of the senses, and its popularity can be understood by locating its context in a society based on consumerism and individual gain.” Thus does Katsiaficas both banish impressionism and all later approaches to art inspired by it from inclusion in the category of “avant-garde,” and, in effect, minimize its value as “art” at all. Since this sort of art merely safisfies the senses, it can’t be the catalyst for subsequent political action, indeed, as Marxists have long maintained, it actively encourages its audience to settle for sensory pleasure and to remain politically quiescent. Furthermore, since we can attribute the broader appeal of impressionist art at least as much to is status as a commodity (its appearance in a context of “consumerism and individual gain"), we have every reason to question its efficacy as an autonomous “artistic” accomplishment in the first place.
The first is a political objection to the apolitical ambitions of impressionism and other aestheticist practices--how shortsighted and selfish it is to wallow in sensory stimulation when there’s a revolution to be fought--while the second seems to me more or less a metaphysical judgment--aestheticist art doesn’t even have an authentic aesthetic identity. It’s just another pernicious product of capitalism, more spurious satisfaction of artificially-constructed needs. Together, these doctrines perform a pretty powerful pincer movement on aestheticism: art that is only art isn’t really art at all.
I understand that a significant number of people--including non-Marxists--subscribe to one or another variation on this view. Art needs history or politics or some other kind of social relevance if it is to be worth taking seriously. But where does this disposition come from? Why such impatience with “mere” art or the “merely literary”? Does someone like Katsiaficas truly disdain the “immediate satisfaction of the senses,” or is this just a way of keeping it in its place?
Perhaps this question is answered by Katsiaficas later in his essay, where he speaks very approvingly of Cubism as an appropriately politicized mode of modern art: “Unlike Impressionism which easily speaks to people in consumer societies, Cubism requires thinking before it can be understood.” So: not only does impressionism conspire with the capitalists in providing too much pleasure, but it is apparently also mindless pleasure. Impressionism needs only to be experienced, while Cubism has to be understood. And again, although I would not claim that most people who prefer their art to be first of all suitable candidates for critical analysis would go as far as Katsiaficas in separating the exegetical wheat from the ornamental chaff, I do believe that something like his distinction between perceiving and thinking does inform much art and literary criticism that elevates engaged over apolitical art or content over form.
Is it a valid distinction? Does some art stimulate thinking while other art dampens it? It depends on what the meaning of “thinking” is. If you believe that “thinking” means moving from the concrete to the abstract, submitting the objects of perception to systematic scrutiny, perhaps it is a warranted distinction. But if you believe that really experiencing a work of art or literature involves the mind just as much as “the senses” vaguely defined, that making such an experience worthwhile requires the viewer/reader’s active participation in meaning-making and in fully apprehending the aesthetic choices made by the artist/writer in creating the work (John Dewey’s account of the way art, when approached conscientiously, is experience), then Katsiaficas’s version of “thinking” seems pretty thin gruel. It enourages us to turn away from the work itself and substitute intellection for dispassionate contemplation, implying that the latter is somehow closer to pure sensory excitement than to “thought” more amply defined.
The advent of, first, theory (or Theory) and, now, cultural studies in literary study in particular could be explained as a manifestation of the academy’s acceptance of Katsiaficas’s definiton of “thinking.” Perhaps it is the case that academic study itself cannont be carried out without some such working definition of what thinking requires. Perhaps literature especially cannot be “studied” unless some degree of discursive abstraction is involved. It’s hard to spend class time “experiencing” literature along the lines drawn out by Dewey, and thus both formalism and simple “appreciation” no longer have many advocates. Empirically speaking, they haven’t turned out be very productive ways of adapting the consideration of works of literature to the prerequisites of formal academic study as they are now understood. But this doesn’t mean that Katsiaficas is correct in making his essentialist distinction between idle and industrious art. Aestheticism may or may not be compatible with cultural and political agitation, but it is not incompatible with cognition.
In light of what you’ve written, I’d be interested in what you’d think of some of the work of Agamben or Nancy on literature and community. With Nancy, I’m thinking primarily the chapter in _Inoperative Community_ entitled “Literary Communism.” Some of Agamben’s thoughts on the matter can be found in _The Coming Community_, though it is scattered throughout—notably, at the end of _State of Exception_ his discussion of Paul and of what we do with the law after the law seems to me to have basically “literary” stakes.
This is of course kind of a “French” thing to do (although Agamben isn’t French)—we get some of it in the later Derrida with his connection of literature to the democracy to come, which ties in with his thoughts on religion (I can e-mail you my translation of “Literature in Secret,” which he added to _The Gift of Death_, if you’re interested—but for other readers out there, I’m not just going to send it out to any old person who asks).
There is definitely a hackneyed way of tying together literature (or the aesthetic more generally), religion, and politics, but there is also a more rigorous and philosophical way that I find to be, at the very least, interesting.
Adam: I’d be happy to read anything you pointed me to, but I have not read Agamben or Nancy. I’d like to see your Derrida translation.
I’m probably one of the least “spiritual” people you ‘re likely to meet, which I suppose is why I find claims like Katsiaficas’s both annoying and “hackneyed.”
My first impression after reading the paper by Katsiaficas was that it was simply very poor on basic professional grounds, failing to acknowledge even perfunctorily the landmarks in scholarship on the area he covers. Substantively it also seems very weak, full of shaky assertions and contradictions, with no real insight or conclusion of value. It’s as if he simply lines up artists and movements according to his own preferences and applies “avant-garde” as a term of positive evaluation: “Dada and Surrealism rool, Impressionism is teh suck!!!1!”. In the end, when Katsiaficas’s history of the avant-garde climaxed with the Yippies, I could’t help but feel a little let down: Courbet, Manet, Picasso . . . Hoffman and Rubin. Perhaps the avant-garde should have quit while it was ahead.
After reading the article again, I simply love the fact that he relies on Marcuse as ultimate authority. It’s so 1971, it’s adorable.